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Americans' reliance on food stamps has declined for the first time since 2007, with a better economy reducing the number of people who turn to the government for help in buying food, according to newly released data.

In Tennessee, about 13,000 fewer people were enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrion Assistance Program, or SNAP, in January compared to the year before — a decline of 1 percent. Nationwide, the drop in enrollment was much a steeper 2.6 percent, leaving a million fewer people enrolled.

"Our hope is that this is going to continue," said Kevin Concannon, Under Secretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The Congressional Budget Office has revised downward the program's projected cost to $728 billion over 10 years, a decrease of about $33 billion.

Still, Tennessee continues to rank among the highest in the nation for reliance on the federal food assistance. Nearly one in five Tennesseans continues to receive food stamps. The high rates have prompted criticisms by some state lawmakers, who have advocated for deeper cuts and proposed restrictions such as banning junk food purchases by recipients.

Proposals to significantly cut or restrict food stamps "often in my view reflect a lack of real awareness of what's going on in the economy," said Concannon. "It's troubling that many legislators are so removed from the circumstances of people they allegedly are elected to serve."

Advocates for the poor said they believe the data shows that the SNAP program does its job.

"They serve their purpose, helping people when they are out of work get back on their feet," said Megan Morton, executive director of Community Food Advocates. "It's a testament to the fact the program has worked for millions of Americans during a very hard time."

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